HONG KONG: Injuries and the Athens Olympics are threatening to deprive the Asian Cup of star quality ahead of the prestigious tournament's kick-off in China next week.
Several of the leading contenders for the 16-team tournament – Asia's equivalent of the European Championship or Copa America – will head to China missing key players.
Japan's Italy-based former Asian Footballer of the Year Hidetoshi Nakata and Fulham midfielder Junichi Inamoto, who suffered a broken leg in a friendly against England last month, head the list of stars ruled out by injury.
But while Nakata and Inamoto will miss the tournament for fitness reasons, many of the other absenteeisms are self-inflicted.
Defending champions Japan and South Korea are both attaching equal importance to August's Olympic football tournament, poaching players from their Asian Cup squads to bolster their Under-23 teams for Athens.
The Japanese, who face Iran, Thailand and Oman in the first round of the Asian Cup, have weakened their squad by insisting that Feyenoord's Shinji Ono and SV Hamburg's Naohiro Takahara play in Greece.
South Korea have followed suit. Yoo Sang-chul and midfielder Song Chong-gug, both veterans of the Koreans' 2002 World Cup campaign when they reached the semi-finals, will both play in Athens instead of China.
South Korea, under new Dutch coach Jo Bonfrere, will wrap up their preparations for China with a match against Bahrain in Gwangju on Sunday. But Bonfrere, who was only appointed as Korea's coach last month, received a boost ahead of the tournament yesterday after learning that he will have the services of PSV Eindhoven's Park Ji-sung.
Ji-sung had initially been pencilled in for the Olympic squad but will now play with the senior team in China to avoid missing Eindhoven's pre-season.
South Korea kick-off their Asian Cup campaign against Jordan in Jinan on July 19, with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates rounding out Group B.
Uzbekistan, who face 2000 runners-up Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkmenistan in Group C, are another side struggling with missing players.
Russian-based players Victor Karpenko and Vladimir Maminov are both doubtful, with Karpenko putting club commitments first and Maminov facing an operation on a heel injury.
Meanwhile star striker Maksim Shatskikh, who plays for Dynamo Kiev, is reportedly reluctant to travel to China and has remained in Ukraine for the new season.
While Japan and Korea have strength in depth to field competitive sides despite the absence of so many first-choice selections, Thailand's preparations have been decimated by yet more withdrawals.
The Thais, still reeling from a 4-1 home defeat to North Korea last month that effectively ended their chances of reaching the final round of World Cup qualifiers, are now faced with losing their inspirational skipper.
Captain Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang has reportedly withdrawn from the squad with fellow Vietnam-based internationals Dusit Chalermsan and Tawan Sripan, all three citing tiredness after a long season.
There are no such problems for hosts China, who open the tournament against Bahrain next Saturday.
The Chinese look to be hitting form at the right time and thrashed Lebanon 6-0 in a midweek friendly.
A total of 32 games will take place in four cities – Beijing, Jinan, Chonqging and Chengdu – in a tournament seen by many as a test of how well China copes with hosting a major sporting event ahead of the 2008 Olympics.
New stadiums have been built in Chonqging and Chengdu and those in Jinan and Beijing have been refurbished. – AFP